The early people of Uganda were mostly made up of hunter-gatherer tribes moving with the seasons. Roughly 2,300 years ago, these mostly Bantu-speaking tribes settled in areas around southern parts of the country and for over hundreds of years, they’ve managed to establish societies and empires. Arab traders coming from the middle east and through Asia established trade routes and moved inland from the Indian ocean and by the 1800s, they had a large economic presence in the country and much of East Africa. Following them, it was the British exploring down the Nile River in the 1830s that established a protectorate here, and officially Uganda was known as a part of “British East Africa”.
Uganda won its independence in 1962 and what followed was unfortunately a few years of political instability resulting in a coup led by legendary dictator Idi Amin. After his reign of terror, Ugandans were met with a new leader Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986.
Despite its past history, the Uganda of the 21st century is an amazing country with a rich history and a plethora of flora and fauna such as the endangered mountain gorilla and the also endangered common chimpanzee. Tourism in Uganda is fun and exciting, it offers a little less comfort than you’d find in places like neighboring Kenya or South Africa but that being said, it is in no real way a dangerous place to see. If you’re looking for the real Africa, this is it. The roads can be rough, the people are friendly, and the sights are incredible. Here are some of the best things to do in Uganda.
Go Trekking for Mountain Gorillas
Often regarded as one of the most important must-do’s of visiting Uganda is to check out the mountain gorillas of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The experience is a rare one with people sometimes requiring permits to go ahead coupled with the fact that there are only about 720 of these gorillas left in the wild. The park is situated in the southwest part of the country and the forest that makes up much of the park extends into the neighboring Congo. The park’s flora is incredibly old and one of the most biodiversity-rich places in the country so getting around some places in the park requires guides or is simply just cut off from visitors. The park is in a remote location and roads are a little bumpy but guests can book accommodations within the park which are usually lodges or tented camps run by locals.
Visiting the park means some close encounters with these endangered gorillas but they are used to humans so they are generally pretty friendly with people approaching them. The price of the permits can be a little steep coming in at 600$ USD but every dollar goes towards maintaining the park and the well-being of the gorillas.
Visit Endangered Rhinos
Animals and outdoor treks are a large part of Ugandan tourism. Located in the Nakasongola district in central Uganda, the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is home to endangered rhino species. Typically you won’t find rhinos in Uganda’s national parks and the unfortunate reason for that is after years of poaching rhinos, they needed some more security and surveillance. Since around the end of the Amin regime, the population of white and black rhinoceroses dwindled to almost none but in 2005, Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary opened with the intention of revitalizing the species. And it worked! Now the sanctuary offers a secure place where the population of native rhinos can be expanded without interference from human and animal predators.
Guests at the sanctuary can take a guided tour through the 7000 hc of land and spot the rhinos in their habitat. Opportunities to hike, canoe, safari, or even sleep and eat here are available.
Cruise around Lake Bunyonyi
With a depth of 130 feet, it is believed that Lake Bunyonyi is the second-deepest lake in Africa. “Bunyonyi” means birds in the local native language and the reason for this is the over 200 different species of bird that inhabit the areas around the lake. The lake itself is surrounded by lush green hills, vibrant forests, and looming hills that make taking a canoe trip around the waters an incredibly picturesque experience.
While there is a huge amount of bird species here, the lake is pretty devoid of aquatic life and so swimming and waters are also popular activities here. Hop on a traditional Ugandan wooden boat and if you’re feeling particularly adventurous check out the islands of Akampene or Sharp’s Island. Akampene or “punishment island” was used as a place where unmarried pregnant women were left to either die or take their chances swimming to the mainland. Men who couldn’t buy a wife could paddle out to the island and pick up a girl. Meanwhile, Sharp’s Island was a former leprosy colony established by an English missionary in 1921.
Hang out in the Middle of the World
The equator runs through Uganda and it is a pretty popular place to take some pictures. The idea of standing in one hemisphere and walking over to the other is fun and it is pretty likely that you’ll never be able to do it again. The well-known landmark of a sign that simply says “Uganda Equator” is a pretty popular roadside destination but if you’re interested in something more than just a roadside sign – check out the Equator Line Restaurant in Kayabwe. While trucks go by and tourists take selfies with the sign, head into the restaurant and you’ll notice the yellow line running through it, cutting it in half. That yellow represents the equator making it probably the only restaurant where you can order in one hemisphere and dine in the other. Despite the kitsch of the place being a restaurant directly on the equator, it is also a pretty good place to grab a fresh cup of Ugandan-grown coffee and a variety of aromatic Ugandan dishes.
Check out the town of Jinja
Just outside of the beautiful Lake Victoria is the town of Jinja. It’s the site where the White Nile flows out of the lake and some even consider it to be the true source of the Nile River. The city is one of the larger ones in the country especially considering most of Uganda is rural. But that being said, Jinja is a place that is loads of fun and usually not too busy with other tourists. For people seeking some thrills, check out some things to do in Jinja.
- Kayak on the Nile: The source of the Nile River starts here and kayaking and canoeing around it is a popular activity. Schools and tours are offered so you can learn about this geographically interesting part of Uganda.
- White water rafting: If you’re into something more thrilling, consider doing some white water rafting. Recent dams built on the water offer a great thrill through the high speeds of the water.
- Bike Tour through town: The city was established in 1901 by the British and further designed in 1948 into planned neighborhoods. Bike tours offer guests the chance to learn about local culture, history, and see some sights around town guided by a local.
- Stroll through the Jina Market: Located smack in the middle of town, the Jinja Market is a must-see. It’s an experience of real Africa with multiple acres of tiny shacks crammed together and selling anything you can think of. If you’re looking for some truly unique and traditional gifts, head here and be sure to haggle.
- Eat: If there’s one thing you need to eat and drink here it’s a Rolex washed down with a Nile Special. While some might be familiar with a Rolex being an expensive watch, it is actually an egg omelet with veggies, wrapped in chapati (flatbread). The name comes from “rolled eggs” sounding like “Rolex” and is a delicacy eaten at any time of the day. The Nile Special is easily East Africa’s best beer made with water from the Nile. Served nice and cold, it is made right here in Jinja and will cool you off in the hot sun.
Experience one of a kind safari
Located in the Western Rift Valley, the Semliki Safari Lodge is one of the most unique places to stay in Uganda. It’s desolate and remote and is surrounded by over 500 square kilometers of unobstructed wildlife. The lodge is remote enough that you’ll feel truly immersed in nature but also coincidentally features some of the best food around.
Getting a spot here is hard, as there is only room for 18 people, so you might want to book your Ugandan vacation based on when a spot opens here. The main lodge is built in an open concept and entirely built out of local materials including wood and permanently thatched roofs. Guest lodging is even more picturesque with luxury tents and bathrooms and a private veranda overlooking the lush green valley below. Wake up in the morning to the sounds of the wild animals and spot elephants, buffaloes, monkeys, and hyenas off in the distance or head out on a day or night forest walks guided by professionals. Wildlife drives are a great way to see the animals and then return to the lodge to feast on a high-end dinner made entirely from locally sourced ingredients. If you’re looking to splurge while you’re staying in Uganda, this is the place to do it.
It’s the capital city of Uganda and one of the only places in the country that can really even be regarded as a city. Sitting on the shores of Lake Victoria, the city is vast with some major sprawl though it is definitely not as daunting as some other African capitals so wandering around the city is still doable. Because it’s the biggest city and home to several NGOs it is also where you’ll find most expats and foreigners.
- Kasubi Tombs: The historic burial place of Uganda’s former kings. To millions of Baganda people, the king is the unquestioned symbol of rule and religion and the Kasubi burial grounds are sacred spaces where four kings are buried. While it is open to tourists, it is also a spiritual site.
- Catch a performance at the Uganda National Cultural Centre: The Uganda National Cultural Centre is the go-to spot for live performances of all kinds. Music, dance, and dramatic performances are common but comedic acts and jam sessions are common too.
- Learn about history at the Uganda Museum: The Uganda Museum is home to all things Uganda. Learn about local history from the tribal age to the colonial and post-colonial eras of Uganda. The museum was established in 1908 and is actually the oldest museum in East Africa. Artifacts and displays illustrate life in Uganda and also feature a collection of traditional instruments in which visitors are free to play and interact.
Our Final Word
Uganda is truly the Pearl of Africa. Along with the endangered mountain gorillas and chimpanzees, you can experience the iconic Big 5, see and climb volcanoes, and though the country has had a dark past, it does not dwell on it and is always looking forward. The climate is wonderful and the people are warm, inviting and resilient. We recommend the company African Adventure Travellers when travelling to Uganda. We have used them twice as they are professional, have some great guides (especially Augustine) and are trustworthy. We think that Uganda should be everyone’s safari destination. The country is truly beautiful and one what we love to explore.